Art history may not always get it right.
To hear James Rosenquist talk about his work back in 1996, historians who tag him a Pop artist are mistaken. And that’s a lot of historians. Even the exhibit literature accompanying a 25-year retrospective at Graphicstudio in Tampa back then noted his “meteoric rise from sign painter to Pop artist.”
Rosenquist, who lives and works on the west coast of Florida, will be guest speaker at the Tampa Convention Center on Nov. 3 and it’s not known what he will say this time. But if it’s anything like last time, he’s no Andy Warhol basing his imagery on consumerism and pop culture. It just looks that way.
That’s because Rosenquist, who began in the ’60s as a billboard painter, paints in billboard sizes that feature photo-real blow-ups of everyday images.
In a telephone interview from New York about his ’96 Graphicstudio show of prints he made there, he told me that Pop art is not his main idea: “It’s always a matter of innovation. Doing something different.”
This means, he said, that if he paints a can of spaghetti and pea soup, the picture isn’t about those things, but rather about the colors red and green. It’s just a way of showing off the colors.
Hank Hine, former director of Graphicstudio and now director of the Dali Museum in St. Pete, is not one of those who call Rosenquist a Pop artist. In fact, he sees him in combat with Pop art.
Referring to the way Rosenquist turns ad art into a kind of lattice work through which other images peek, Hine said, “It’s as if Jimmy were not about to let advertising art overshadow art.”
Rather than elevating banal things, then, as his super-size works look like they’re doing, Rosenquist aims to create new pictorial space: “Art is almost like taking drugs,” he said. “You need a bigger jolt every time or it’s not worth doing. After it’s done, the big high is to see if the painting or print works.”
As for his printmaking at Graphicstudio from 1971 to the present, he said it had changed “immensely,” beginning with traditional, small-scale work to giant images for which he invented a technique.
To produce prints on the scale of his painting, he renders a background color on billboard-size canvas and glues cut-out images to it that he made on the traditional small printing press.
“With printmaking, “he said, “it’s always a matter of what can you do that hasn’t been done. The same with art.”
Now, these 15 years later, one wonders if his talk at Tampa Convention Center will reveal any change of heart about his art.